Contemporary Themes In Sound Arts Practice; Thought Process as a Sonic Process, depicted through Autobiographical Works
The voice operates within and through the structures of language, simultaneously inside and outside in a singular moment. It exists as a vibratory sensation, expelled breath, a signifying gesture, and a communicable message. The voice, however, is a paradox – in control and out of control. It reveals agency through spoken words, forming commands, pleas, and invitations, yet it can also dissolve agency, leaving the speaker depleted and unable to conjure words for further conversation.
This writing contextualises the concerns and ideologies of my practice, emphasising sonic processes contributing to a discourse that hasn't found a physical voice yet. To explore these themes, I delve into contemporary pieces and theoretical texts, drawing connections to my own work.
Focusing on Lydia Lunch, a prominent figure in No Wave and Avant-Garde, her work serves as a contemporary renaissance that combines music, spoken word, performance, film, gender, sexuality, humour, and politics. Lunch's characterisations and presentations of life events through verbal and written projection, particularly her confessional and often unsettling approach, have inspired my experimentation with language and the manipulation of spoken words.
The cut-up technique, associated with William S. Burroughs and the Beat Generation, has influenced Lunch's work. Burroughs' obsession with power, control, and addiction, as well as his self-exposed exile from mainstream American society, parallels Lunch's concerns. This influence led me to apply similar methods to my practice, using improvised walking and sonic events to inform my literal pieces.
The confessional nature of Lunch's work, along with her intense relationship with the male species, prompts reflections on gender and literary works. Despite her apparent abusive approach, Lunch uses the male motif as a structure for her own work. Similarly, I employ a confessional approach, seeking self-empowerment and healing through personal expression and suggestive narratives.
Tracey Emin and her confessional approach in works like "Strangeland" and "My Bed" offer another perspective. Emin's autobiographical artworks, devoid of extensive words, project personal narratives through tactile forms and object placement, creating a powerful emotional impact.
Contrasting viewpoints on gender in literature emerge, with the female voice seeking acknowledgment and expression in a male-dominated literary world. Olsen's assertion that a writer is a writer, irrespective of gender, is juxtaposed by her acknowledgment of the struggle faced by women writers.
Brandon LaBelle's exploration of the voice in "Background Noise" highlights the danger inherent in pursuing the voice as it aims for language. The uneasiness arises on a wide political scale, particularly concerning feminism and feminist theory, impacting how the female voice is vocalised and received.
In conclusion, the voice's quest for language as its target navigates a territory marked by uneasiness and controversy, especially within the context of feminism. As the voice completes and complicates the signification of sound, it adds layers of presence, body, and voice while relying on language as a referent. The voice becomes a complex entity, simultaneously embodying and transcending itself in the pursuit of expression.
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“The voice is operating within and through the structures of language … the voice is inside and outside in one and the same instant; it is spoken and heard, in the head of the speaker, as vibratory sensation and expelled breath and as signifying gesture, as communicable message. Thus we recognise our voice only as it leaves, only at the moment of its articulation. The voice is in control and out of control; it reveals agency in the words spoken, which forms commands, pleas, and invitations, and, in turn, it dissolves agency, leaving the speaker depleted, helpless and unable to conjure words so as to enter conversation and the power plays of voicing”. (LaBelle, 2006, pg.105)
For the purpose of this writing, a contextualisation regarding the concerns and ideologies of my practice (thought processes as sonic process; contributing towards a discourse that has not quite found a physical voice), I will discuss themes within contemporary pieces and theoretical texts that relate to the concerns and formation of my own work.
Focussing particularly on the words (both spoken and written) of No Wave and Avant - Garde’s Lydia Lunch, a “contemporary renaissance poetess, artist, musician and provocateur … through genres of music, spoken word, performance, film, gender and sexuality, humour and politics” (Finley, p.9, 2006), I am interested in how she characterised and presented her focalisation of life events through verbal and written projection. Consisting of personal insanity, her work created unsettling experiences for her audiences, as her trauma “enforced and inspired creative responses” (Finley, p.9, 2006) through a collection of personal essays. She allowed her voice and her dominating presence to project an art form that engendered a self-empowerment via spoken word in 1980’s New York.
An element of speech that caught my attention, from Lunch in the documentary Her Noise - The Making of (2006), was “Blondie Cant Cut ([-ups] forming my working response) It”. This in turn inspired me to experiment with language and the manipulation of the spoken word - forming my own personal narratives by abstracting the original meaning in order to form a new, fractured (sonic) narrative; composed of site specific sounds, spoken word and written text.
I have also considered Lunch’s work in relation to William S. Burroughs and how his association with the cut - up technique, as well as that of the Beat Generation, influenced Lunch’s written and spoken word. I considered the main attributes and formation of the work (obsession, control and order as a result) and applied it to my own practice as a working method; allowing myself the control to inform my own literal pieces via improvised walking and sonic events - documenting my thoughts and site specific sounds simultaneously.
All aspects of Burroughs’ work form togetherness in a desperate obsession with power and control, and simultaneously with addiction. This influenced the self-inflicted texts he produced with an approach a cure of the latter, similar to Lunch.
“Burroughs was a self-described “Junkie” and “Queer” (to cite the titles of his first two books) whose career was spent in self-exposed exile form mainstream American Society and culture.” (Warner/ Cox, 1953, p.334)
A juxtaposition of a mirroring of the two characters Lydia Lunch and William Lee, or Ann Koch and Burroughs (original names), I removed myself from their context and characterisations to form my own written and spoken cut-ups / fragmented texts in relation to the concept of my work.
When reading a narrative, you often become involved. You become the embodiment of characterisation, captivated and removed from the social norm, and every so often you find yourself removing that intense connection and relationship between you and the characters within (the power of the author), by removing your head space (metaphorically and physically) to stare out of the window of a train per se. The experience creates a ghost like entity of the soul as you‘re attempting to digest the words in front of you; placing yourself in, yet trying to remove the self from, the fixation of the literature. Entering and exiting reality and idealism / fantasy, in a state of flux, with the words still reverberating around the mind as a repetition to the words last read; as a form of listening.
“…. Listening to the inner sounds of the imaginative mode, spans a wide range of auditory phenomena .. acoustic tokens of an abstract listening that fails to hear the otherness revealed by voice. It places itself in a position of ultimately denying a connection with the philosophies of language and of the mind that sometimes secretly share the concerns of a phenomenology of listening and voice” (Ihde, p.147,2007)
You aim to escape that moment unconsciously, whilst being drawn back to your own reality. Mimicking structure and the recall of human memory within a non-linear narrative, Burroughs placed his past thoughts and present happenings into the fictional character of William Lee. This descended on it original description and arrived with a cadence that travelled beyond its original beginnings, as a result of travelling through a series of control. Correspondingly, I began to question form and ‘formation’ in terms of structure; the structure of language and text having a non - structural form. How do the structures implied inform material?
“Burroughs understanding of control society was extensive, and Lunch’s work shares these concerns. Both understand addiction – respectively narcotic and sexual – both chart personal and social compulsions, the violence of daily existence, and the understanding of the outsider as the individual who seeks to exist free of restriction”. (https://centerinparis.uchicago.edu)
Lunch narrated her own personal experiences as an “uncensored, novelised account of one woman's assault on the male of the species” (https://books.google.co.uk). Paradoxia: A Predators Diary consists of graphic confessions of sexual adventures as she documents her city travels - New York, Amsterdam, New Orleans, London…sex, depression, loneliness and addiction.
“And is death not the ultimate orgasm, a return to that otherworldly ether, whose very origins were indeed a Big Bang, the ultimate explosion, the supreme chaos, whose resonance is the vibration we constantly seek to reproduce in everything we do.” (Lunch, Paradoxia, 1997)
As a reaction between gender and literary works, when considering the previous works of Lunch and Burroughs, I began to consider the relationship between writing and gender, as both discuss desires and sexual activity with the opposite sex, an addiction in which they both preferred. Although her abusive approach towards the male species, and the assumption that Burroughs was a misogynist as a result of his shooting his wife dead, almost becomes a contradiction, as she used this male motif as a structure to form her own work;
“I thought it was important to insert myself in the ‘The Burroughs Century’ because we talk a lot about the same things. I thought it would be interesting instead of using his cut-up technique to see what happens to cut-in Burroughs work to mine. That's basically what I'll be doing at the performance. The beauty of what Burroughs does is that it doesn't have to be coherent. That's what the cut-up technique was all about. Not necessarily making complete reasonable sense but trying to encourage another kind of sense.” (http://www.nuvo.net - Lydia Lunch on William S. Burroughs, Performance, Sex, and Punk Feminism)
As a result, I have considered this working approach as a form of personal healing-process - both wanting to be heard on a number of levels. Confessional words existing as a piece of literature, characterised through personal expression and suggestive personal narrative, gender relation inconsiderable when removing the similar writing styles and contextual themes, diminishing any aspect of patriarchy, even though the majority of Lunch’s work is based upon this and her relationship with her father.
“.. of acceding to the patriarchal injunction: if you are going to practice literature - a mans domain, profession - divest yourself as what might identify you as a woman”. … “Writing in dominant male forms, style, although what seeks to be expressed might ask otherwise. … Consciously seeking male - identified characteristics, bluntness, thrust, force; abstraction, detachment … Proclaiming that ones sex has nothing to do with one’s writing: is understandable. In its traditional form: accepting or seeming to accept that the circumstances for and the practice of literature are above gender” (Olsen, 1985, p.250)
In Silences (1965) (a testimony of female literature), Olsen appears to contradict herself here, as she is implying that it is a mans domain to practice literature, provoking the question as to what is writing in male form? Furthermore, what makes a woman in order to identify one, and who is to criticise a females writing identity? What right does another have to determine what is patriarchy and what is matriarchy?
Another female in comparison to Lunch - Tracey Emin, also projects a confessional approach towards her literature: Strangeland (2005), (also spoken words in documentation form in Why I Never Became A Dancer (1995)) a diary of her former years of a traumatic childhood, abandonment, rape, poverty, male abuse, addiction and sexual promiscuity. Displayed in poetry form, she confesses her early years:
“The summers were amazing,
nothing to do but dream.
It was ideal.
And there was sex,
it was something you could just do
and it was free.”
Emin, Why I Never Became A Dancer in Strangeland , p.43, 1995
One specific piece, and possibly most controversial, existing as an installation, My Bed (1998), resonates abortion, loneliness, alcohol, depression, sex and other confessions of personal insecurities through her autobiographical artwork, confessional art and female identity without the need for further words. It metaphorically speaks in object, tactile form. The elements of a physical space allows the experience to become that more real, as the viewers body is placed alongside the elements that others are writing about, instead Emin does not need words in order to project personal narratives. The viewer physically steps inside a space, which belonged to another time, and space, yet echoes these moments within the present time. The silent words reverberate around the viewer’s mind, similar words that would be readable within Lunch’s graphical texts.
“Being removed from the fact and, as a result, more forcefully brought back to it, is a striking feature of Tracey Emin’s work, particularly prominent in My Bed .The virtue of bringing the domestic into the public sphere, without presenting directly specific events, allows the work to become suggestive of personal narrative”. (Tate Britain, BP Spotlight, Tracey Emin and Francis Bacon)
The human presence of a memory trace, past events, transfers it automatically to the present existing in present time, the here-and-now, further suggesting events that have not quite happened, and may never happen. Being removed, however, brought back within a particular time-space continuum (Tate Britain/Tate Liverpool) allows the viewer to experience Emin’s life events within the context of a hierarchal art space - “An absolute mess and decay of life. All of the things around my bed no longer relate to my life at all…being with someone and not being with someone and how much life changes…its an experience, its a reaction towards the bed.” (http://www.tate.org.uk)
What I find most contradictory about the space, where both works of Emin and Bacon momentarily exist together, is this relationship between gender. Simultaneously to that of Lunch and Burroughs, as an element of location, is the male presence and power of Bacon’s paintings seemingly look down on the presence of a woman at a very low point of life. As a result, the space personally brought me emotion together with the sense of a lived presence and the embarrassing but sincere concepts of real life. This experience enabled a psychoanalysis of the work in order to apply to my own thoughts, as it removed me mentally and physically from my current thoughts and daily experiences, and brought me into a state where I stopped thinking about the constant events that I did not really have conscious control over.
“My world is my experience, and what I experience comes back into my work.” (Tracey Emin, interview with Sean O’Hagan, 2005)
“In addition, there is a danger of fixing to the past; to self involvement; the distortion of memory the focus on the personal (most the psycho-sexual); the ignoring of societal roots, causes, effects. All of which diminish, make shallow, and falsify one’s writing. ( p.253) .. the term “woman writer” .. has no meaning, not intellectually, not morally, not historically. A writer is a writer”. (Olsen, 1985, p.251)
Abandoning the previous statement regarding patriarchy matriarchy relationships, Olsen further suggests with a hint of contradiction, that a writer is a writer, however the existence of separation between the two clearly exists as she reveals that all women have “written—though their work has been officially ignored—and examines the forces they struggled against in order to create forces that led in many cases to premature silence”, (http://www.feministpress.org) yet desperate to be heard.
Furthermore, and an expansion on the relationship between the separation and distinction of language, spoken word and written literature pieces, Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise (From Music to Voice) discusses a further relation towards the voice, written and spoken and the structures of language; “To pursue the voice as heard in art is to approach a field of danger, for as sonic media the voice aims for language as its target” (LaBelle, 2006, pg.106)
In conclusion and with consideration my interests, if the voice aims for language as its target, in order for the voice to be heard, we (considering the female) enter a territory that forms an uneasiness, based on a wide political scale in relation to feminism and feminist theory, which in turn may effect the sociality and the vocalisation of oneself as it may present and appear controversial, a controversy without any conscious control.
“One must leave the speaking subject behind to hear the sonically of speech, while returning to the subject as, as embodiment of an orality that is already more than itself. The voice thus completes and complicates the signification of sound by adding and subtracting presence, by overriding the symbolic domain of language with too much signification, too much body and too much voice, and by relying upon language, by keeping intact, as referent, the means of signification.” … (LaBelle, 2006, pg.106)
Cox, Christoph, Warner Daniel (2004) Audio Culture, Readings In Modern Music, Continuum, London
Emin, Tracy (2005) Strangeland, Sceptre, London
Grauerholz James, Silverberg Ira (1998) Word Virus The William S. Burroughs Reader, Grove Press, New York
Ihde, Don (2007) The Centre of Language in Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, Second Edition, Suny Press, New York
Ingleton, Holly (2010) Her Noise Archive Overview (pdf) [accessed 16/11/2015]
Labelle, Brandon (2006) Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Continuum, London
Lunch, Lydia (2009) Will Work For Drugs, Akashic Book, New York
Lunch, Lydia (1997) Paradoxia: A Predators Diary, Creation, New York
Olsen, Tillie (1965) Silences, Virago, London
W. J. T. Mitchel (1963) Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, University of Chicago Press, US
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